Following (1998)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

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Following is a very frustrating movie.  It’s reminiscent of the story structure and puzzles of Nolan’s other films, particularly Memento and Inception.  It’s clear he likes to play with the audience and withhold information that, when finally revealed, makes you scan your brain trying to remember what has already happened in the movie.  In this case I understand the intended audience disorientation as it reflects the protagonist, Bill’s own journey as he follows people around, slowly learning more about them.  But as the twists add up, we’re left with one character’s ultimate plan that seems dependent on coincidences that could have never been predicted.  If, for example, Bill hadn’t fallen in love with the blonde woman (whom I don’t think has name), the ultimate plan and the movie itself would fall apart.

So to backtrack, Bill is a struggling writer who develops a habit of following strangers around in public.  He narrates his story and explains that the problems began when he followed the same man multiple times, exposing himself by not being careful enough.  The man he follows, Cobb, turns out to be a burglar who is surprisingly open with Bill, even inviting him along on his next burglary.  Bill develops a taste for this lifestyle which Cobb has glorified as not a means to a financial end but as a way of disrupting someone’s life and shining a light into aspects of someone you would never otherwise see.  “You take it away, you show them what they had,” he tells Bill somewhat menacingly.  As an aspiring writer, this intrigues Bill.

Bill eventually cuts his greasy, shaggy hair and begins wearing a suit, mimicking Cobb’s own appearance.  The movie jumps around in time to show Bill as the burglar apprentice and Bill as a beaten, desperate thief.  We know he’s going to undergo some kind of change, but we’re not sure how we’ll get there.  As long-haired Bill learns how to break into houses, short-haired Bill meets a blonde woman at a bar and takes a liking to her.  In another ‘flashback,’ (there is no defined flashbacks or flash forwards, so I don’t know what to call it) we see Bill and Cobb break into the house of this same woman, planting the seed of Bill’s attraction to her.  We now know that he didn’t just bump into her on accident, but rather he targeted her.

The woman, let’s just call her Trouble, makes it clear that she likes Bill in return but that she also has an abusive ex-boyfriend, basically a mobster.  Trouble eventually tells Bill that the mobster ex killed a man in her house when she broke up with him.  She then tells Bill, after he admits to some of his thieving habits, that the mobster has pictures of her in a safe in his office.  Without explicitly telling Bill to steal them back for her, she gets him to volunteer to steal them.  This is what gets Bill in trouble.

By jumping forwards and backwards through time, we learn that Cobb has his own relationship with Trouble.  So we get an idea of how in over his head Bill is.  By the time Bill agrees to steal the photos back for Trouble, we know it’s a set up of some kind, but we’re not sure why.  Cobb orchestrates the entire thing in dialogue that is a little on the nose, meant to ensure that the audience is keeping up.  Cobb and Trouble discuss how earnest and a bit pathetic Bill is, particularly after Bill has changed his appearance to match Cobb’s own appearance.  This becomes a pivotal detail in Bill’s downfall.

Bill robs the mobster’s safe and finds a lot of money in the safe as well.  He desperately tries to tape the money to his body because he has no better way to secure the money.  A man walks in and finds him, but Bill hits him over the head with a hammer and escapes.  He then confronts Trouble about the set up, and she tells him the plan: Cobb made Bill in his own image so a burglary gone wrong (with an old woman accidentally murdered) could be pinned on Bill.  Bill was supposed to be caught by the man he nearly beat to death in his own escape.  With no other option, Bill goes to the police and tells the story that he has just told us.  The policeman then tells Bill that there is no one named Cobb and no recent murder of an elderly woman.  The cop also tells Bill that he’s arrested for Trouble’s murder.  That’s when we get the flashbacks of Cobb killing Trouble, the last part of his ultimate plan.  Cobb was working for the mobster ex-boyfriend who sent him to kill Trouble and allowed him to keep the money Bill himself stole from the safe.  Because Bill has a number of Trouble’s own possessions (from when they broke into her house), all the evidence points to him as the murderer.

This movie is ridiculous, but that’s not a bad thing.  I was irritated by the constant pulling the rug out from under us, and I’m still a little peeved with Cobb’s character, but I think I’m onboard with what Nolan was trying to do.  This is clearly a work in progress version of the complex plot constructions of his later films.  He’s certainly ambitious, but his characters suffer in service to the plot.

Bill is an interesting loner, who makes quite a transformation into a more suave criminal, like someone from Reservoir Dogs.  At first he seems incapable of holding a normal conversation or even maintaining eye contact with another person, but by the second half of the movie he’s a bit frightening.  His flirtation with Trouble is eerie once we know he has broken into her home already.  He asks her questions like a serial killer probing a victim, or like the Zodiac contacting the Chronicle and releasing puzzles for the public to solve.  He’s Jigsaw, I guess (from Saw).

It’s also quite a crazy change considering how short the timeframe is.  Bill is enamored not only with this new lifestyle but also with Cobb, and Cobb starts off as a pretty interesting guy but ends up feeling more like a brainless cardboard cut out J.Crew model come to life than an actual person.  The whole story falls under the umbrella of his plan, and he did the whole thing for money.  He made a woman fall in love with him and a man idolize him, and he buries them both.  So yeah, Bill is a bit of a psychopath.  He becomes much less interesting by the end of the film.  Someone like No Country For Old Men‘s Anton Cigurh (Javier Bardem) is a much more interesting psychopath because we don’t know why he does what he does.  In that movie, Cigurh has no interest in money, the driving force for all of the other violence in the story.  Here, Cobb is very much interested in the money.  It’s the only thing he cares about, but money is a very simplistic motivation, and Cobb’s personality is a complex web boiled down into a toxic concoction of emotional distance, probable trust issues, vanity and power.  The money wouldn’t seem to interest him.  He does appear to take some joy in destroying Bill along with murdering Trouble, but so what?  Bill begins as an isolated writer, and his only plunge into personal relationships backfires horribly.  This whole movie is like a PSA justifying anti-social behavior: “See? People will only hurt you.”

I like this movie best as an experiment, which I think it is.  A lot is ignored or rushed over to make the plot twists and structural playfulness work.  It’s impressive what Nolan has done, especially as an independent film made for I believe around $7,000.  And I think he learned what he needed to learn because the plot twists and time jumps in a film like Memento ultimately shine a light into the main character (Guy Pierce’s Leonard).  At the end of that film you not only have to rethink the entire film, but you also see Leonard in a completely new way that makes sense given his personal struggles and a fading sense of self and purpose.

 

 

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